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Souza, Jr. may be playing hurt

A few back to back injuries seem to have derailed his fast start

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with the obvious but necessary caveat: anyone can have a rough 15-game stretch. Two-plus weeks worth of games isn’t enough to draw any real conclusions about a player, and Souza could go on a seven-game tear to end May and make me look silly for writing this.

That being said, it’s been a mighty tough May for Souza Jr. so far. The 28-year-old has been the least valuable Ray in May, slashing .111/.269/.204 en route to -0.2 fWAR for the month. He has just one home run and 10 RuBIns (runs+RBI) in 15 games since the calendar flipped, and his wRC+ of 42 for the month ranks 13th-worst in baseball for the month of May.

The most obvious explanation (besides the small sample size that comes with month-to-month data) is injury. On April 24, Souza suffered a bone bruise on the inside of his right elbow after a failed attempt to rob a home run. Less than a week later, on April 29, Souza had to leave the game after being hit on the left hand during an at bat against Joe Biagini. Finally, just over a week after that second injury, Souza was jammed on a pitch inside and left the game with a sharp pain in his thumb. Here’s the season breakdown (it just so happens to be a perfect 20 games of each) before and after that very first injury (via Baseball-Reference):

Souza Pre- and Post-Injuries

4/2 - 4/23 20 0.347 0.424 0.613 4 11 22
5/1 - 5/21 20 0.151 0.292 0.219 1 3 31

That’s about as stark a difference as one can imagine. Souza has hit for a far worse average, way less power, and is failing to make contact at a higher rate. The most damning column is the extra-base hits. One of the tell-tale signs that a hitter is playing through an injury (especially to an area like the elbow or hand or thumb) is a sapping of power. Souza’s power has all but disappeared since the injuries, with just three extra-base hits in the 20 games since that first injury.

If you prefer a bit more analytical data, here is the April vs. May data from FanGraphs:

Souza Pre- and Post-Injuries

Month LD% GB% FB% Pull% Hard% wRC+
Month LD% GB% FB% Pull% Hard% wRC+
April 31.8 37.9 30.3 43.3 32.8 166
May 17.2 48.3 34.5 33.3 20.0 42

Different numbers, same story. Souza is hitting far fewer line drives, and he is making hard contact, as a whole, with far less regularity. He’s even failing to turn on the ball as much as he was during his hot start to the season.

If we turn to Brooks Baseball for yet another look at Souza’s struggles, the results are obvious yet again:

Souza’s whiff rate is up on all three different pitch types in May, which is not surprising given his 37.3 percent strikeout rate for the month as a whole. It certainly isn’t a bad thing to strike out often, but once a player crosses the 35 percent threshold, unless he has the raw power of a Joey Gallo/Aaron Judge, it’s hard to retain value in the batter’s box.

With Souza’s power sapped - almost certainly due to the trio of upper-body injuries - that high strikeout rate is tough to overcome. His increased walk rate (17.9 percent in May) helps to mitigate the high strikeout rate a bit, but in this author’s eyes, that just looks like a player who isn’t comfortable swinging the bat right now and, as a result, is content to leave the bat on his shoulders in hope of a walk.

The Rays are in a bit of a tricky spot. Souza has been given a few days off in May, but the team decided against putting him on the DL. The club was without Colby Rasmus when the first two injuries occurred, and they needed Souza’s bat in the lineup to stick around the AL East race. Now that he is a couple weeks removed from the last of those injuries, it would be strange to see Souza go on the DL - teams don’t often delay a DL stint for two weeks after an injury took place.

It seems clear, however, that Souza is struggling to deal with these injuries. It may simply be a matter of time before he is back to full health, but sometimes these types of injuries can linger for the majority of a season. Think of Bryce Harper last year. A baseball schedule is simply too busy to ever give a player a chance to reset and get fully healthy, so the little dings that build up day to day can make it so that these types of lingering injuries can last a full season.

The best course of action might be to bite the bullet and send Souza to the DL for the ten-day minimum to get the player they had to start the season back in action. If the Rays don’t think they can afford ten days without Souza, it’s up to Cash to give Souza a couple days off here and there and hope that does the trick.

As was noted at the beginning of this article, there’s a chance that some of these struggles are merely due to the small sample size nature of looking at data from the past three weeks alone. Souza was running hot to start the season and was bound to slow down a bit. It is also possible that the injuries led to subtle changes in approach that have diminished his offensive production, in which case a DL stint is unlikely to help.

Having said that, there is at least a clear correlation between the timing of Souza’s injuries and the timing of his slump. It’s admirable to play through injury, but when you’re having a net negative effect on the team it may be time to shut it down for a few weeks and get healthy.